When cooking chicken, the breasts are probably the most troublesome part of the bird. Unlike the thighs and legs, breasts dry out easily because they are lean with very little fat or blood vessels. Since breasts are so tricky, I turned to the barbecue gurus to find out the best approach. Turns out, there are several techniques we can use to can smoke chicken breasts in a Traeger or pellet grill to get tender, juicy breasts every time.
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For best results, pre-brine the chicken breasts overnight in a basic brine mixture. Dry, then apply a decent layer of salt, pepper and a barbecue rub. Set the temperature of the Traeger or pellet grill to 225°F and cook the breasts to an internal meat temperature of 160°F. Remove the breasts and rest in foil until the breasts reach 165°F. Another option is to wrap the breasts in bacon for extra flavor and moisture.
- Cherry, apple, hickory or pecan wood pellets.
- Salt and Pepper
- Barbecue rub
- Small chicken breasts
- 1.5 gallons of water.
- Half a cup of kosher salt .
- Half a cup of sugar.
- 2 teaspoons of garlic powder.
- 2 teaspoons of onion powder.
- 2 teaspoons of Cajun spice.
1. Sprinkle the breasts in rub, salt, pepper.
2. Optional- wrap the breasts in bacon. Use toothpicks to attach.
3. Preheat the Traeger or pellet grill to 225°
4. Cook the breasts until the internal meat temperature reaches 160°F.
5. Remove and wrap the breasts in foil. Let rest for 5 minutes.
* Optional - Pre-Brine The Breasts
1. pour the 1.5 gallons of water into a large container.
2. On the stove, dissolve 1/2 a cup of kosher salt and 1/2 a cup of sugar. Then add to the water.
3. For some extra flavor, add 2 teaspoons of garlic powder., 2 teaspoons of onion powder and 2 teaspoons of Cajun spice.
4. Place the chicken breasts into the container and leave for a minimum of 6 hours.
5. Remove the breasts from the brine. Rinse with cold water and dry with a paper towel.
Serving Size:100 grams
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 165Total Fat: 3.6 gramsgProtein: 31g
When Are Chicken Breasts Done?
The USDA recommends chicken be cooked to an internal temperature of 165⁰F. I would recommend removing the chicken breasts at 160° F, and allow for some carryover cooking to bring the breast up to 165° F. Since chicken breasts can dry out easily, you don’t want to go over that 165° F because it could dry out. Let the breasts rest in aluminium foil for 5 or 10 minutes after cooking, and it should come up to a safe temperature.
Smoking Breasts At 225° F
Cook breasts at a low temperature, in the 225° range. If you cook the breast too high for too long, they will dry out. Depending on the size and thickness of the chicken breasts, it should take around about 2.5 to 3 hours to smoke the breasts at 225° F. Keep a thermometer probe inserted into one of the breasts so you can track the temperature, or using instant-read thermometer and keep a close eye on the breasts during the cook. Remove the breasts once the temperature reaches 160° F, then let them rest in foil for 5 minutes. Even while resting, the breasts should continue rising to the safe 165° F temperature. You shouldn’t experience dry chicken at this temperature, but if you do, pre-brine the breasts or wrap them in bacon, the guarantee tender juicy breasts.
Cooking Breasts at 275° F
It won’t take long to cook the chicken breasts if you are smoking at 275° F. Expect them to be done in around 1 hour—depending on the size and thickness of the breasts. If you are smoking the breasts at 275° F, I would highly recommend soaking the breast in a brine prior to cooking.
Rub and Seasoning
You can either make your own barbecue rub, or you can buy a store-bought rub. The problem with pre-made rubs is most will contain a lot of salt. This can ruin your meat—especially if you brine the breasts prior to smoking. My favorite pre-made rubs are Killer Hogs or World BBQ Champion Harry Soo’s Slap Yo Daddy rub. You can’t go wrong with either of those rubs because they are produced by barbecue gurus. Here is a great homemade rub recipe that you can use on your chicken. This is a great all-around rub that’s easy to make with ingredients that most people have in their pantry.
Aaron Franklin Rub
If you want to keep things really simple, then perhaps try an Aaron Franklin style rub. The barbecue guru isn’t a fan of complex rubs and prefers to let the meat be the star of the show. Aaron uses traditional Texas flavors—which are mostly salt and pepper with a little paprika. For poultry, Aaron uses Morton’s kosher salt and a cafe grind 16-mesh black pepper. Franklin uses a 50/50 ratio of salt and pepper on his seasoning and sometimes adds in a little of paprika for color. For a savory flavor, he sometimes adds a little garlic powder and onion granules.
Make Sure Chicken Is Cooked Properly
Chicken contains a lot of bacteria, so it needs to be cooked well. However, breasts can dry out easily—so you don’t want to overcook them either. Getting this balance right is the reason chicken breasts are challenging. Since chicken contains lots of bacteria, use a good thermometer so the meat is safe to eat. A cheap, inaccurate thermometer will put your health at risk. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on thermometers. I use a $30 instant-read, which is just as good as the $100 thermometers. You can check it out the TP19 here on Amazon.
The Smoke Ring
When smoking chicken, a pink ring will form on the outer layer of the meat. This smoke ring makes the chicken appear underdone—but this is a normal occurrence. The smoke ring occurs when the smoke reacts to the fat on the surface of the meat. A series of chemical reactions take place, and the smoke preserves some of the pink pigment. That’s why you should never just “eyeball” chicken, or cook to a specific time. The safest way to cook chicken is to cook it to temperature, not time. And the only way to cook to temperature is with a meat thermometer.
Tip 1: Brine The Breasts For Extra Moisture
Brining is a great way to add some extra flavor and moisture to the chicken breasts. The salt will help the breasts retain moisture during the cook, and will prevent it from drying out. There are dozens of chicken brine recipes you can find online, but I like to keep it simple.
Brine Recipe For Chicken Breasts
- 1.5 gallons of water
- Half a cup of kosher salt
- Half a cup of sugar.
You can add in some herbs and spices:
- 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons of onion powder
- 2 teaspoons of Cajun spice
Some people mix in a cup of vinegar or a cup of apple cider vinegar.
How Long To Soak the Breasts In A Brine?
You want to soak the breasts in the brine for at least 6 hours. I always brine the day before and soak the chicken overnight. Place the brine mixture in a plastic container and make sure the breasts are covered in the brine solution and then place the lid on the container. Prior to cooking, rinse the breasts, then pat dry with a paper towel.
Tip 2 : Wrap The Breasts in Bacon
Another common technique to prevent dryness is to wrap the chicken breast in bacon. This is a great way to add some extra moisture to the meat because the fat on the bacon will baste the breast. Bacon fat will also add extra flavor. Use toothpicks to hold the bacon in place. If you really want to get all fancy, cut open the chicken breast and stuff it with feta cheese, herbs, etc.
Tip 3: Buy Small Chicken Breasts
I find it easier to smoke smaller breasts rather than large 10 oz breasts you see at the stores. I try to get them in the five to seven oz range, because they are just easier to manage.
Tip 4: Buy Skin-On Chicken Breasts
If you have chicken breasts with the skin intact, then try cooking at a higher temperature so the skin will turn out nice and crispy. If you smoke chicken at a low temperature, the skin will be soft and rubbery—especially if you haven’t dried the skin prior to cooking. The good thing about skin-on breasts is it will provide some extra moisture and protection during the cook. With the extra fat, the breasts won’t dry out as easily. However, I would highly recommend wet brining your chicken breasts, even with skin on. If you choose to brine, rinse and dry the breasts before placing them into the Traeger. Once you have removed the breasts from the brine, rinse with cold water and place back into the refrigerator, uncovered. Let them sit overnight and the skin should dry out nicely. Alternatively, take a paper towel and pat the breasts to remove as much moisture as possible. The only problem with drying the skin is the rub may not stick. Use a bit of olive oil on the chicken breast as a binder for the seasoning. Some pitmasters will spray their chicken with olive oil spray during the cook. This technique will aid the browning of the chicken.
Tip 5 : Reverse Sear Chicken Breast On The Traeger
Another way you can approach chicken breast is to cut it open, so it looks more like a steak. Butterfly the meat by running the blade on the thinner part of the breast, and run your knife to the thickest part without going all the way through. You should be out of then fold out the breast so it looks like a large steak. Then take a mallet and give the breast a bash to flatten it out some more. Apply your seasonings or barbecue, rub to the chicken breast, then place it on the Traeger pellet grill at 200° F for about 30 to 45 minutes. Then, finish the chicken breasts over a direct flame, or sear at a higher temperature until the chicken breast reaches 160° F. Let it rest for 5 minutes and it should come up to 165° F.
Best Wood Pellets For Smoking Chicken Breasts
Chicken has a thin flesh, so mild fruit woods flavors work best with chicken. Apple or cherry are very popular with fish and poultry, because those wood flavors produce a mild smoke that won’t overpower the meat. I like to use cherry pellets because it gives the chicken a nice reddish color and a sweet flavor. Either buying blended pellets or mixing flavors is always a safe choice. My favorite combinations are a 50/50 mix of apple and cherry. Sometimes I’ll mix in some hickory for a stronger smoke flavor.
Hickory by itself may be a little strong for chicken — so use with caution. If you find hickory too strong with chicken, only use a 20/80 ratio mixed with a mild smoking wood. However, I wouldn’t stress too much about wood choice. The chicken breasts will only be on the grill for 1 or 2 hours. Bitter smoked meat is usually only a concern with long cooks.
My Favorite Meat Smoking Tools
Thanks for checking out this article. I hope you learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite tools I use when smoking brisket that may be useful to you. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to purchase any of these products, I’ll earn a commission. But in all honesty, these are the tools I recommend to my family and friends who are just starting out.
Meat Thermometer: There are dozens of fancy thermometers on the market, but I still use my trusty TP20. For around $50, I have a high-quality meat thermometer with two probes, and can track the temperature of my smoker with one probe, and my meat with the other probe. The ThermoPro TP20 is an Amazon Best Seller because it’s the easiest thermometer to operate, is durable, highly accurate, and comes with pre-programmed meat settings.
Instant Read Thermometer: Arguably, the second most important tool you need is a fast and accurate instant-read thermometer. These tools play an important role in the latter stages of the cook when the meat needs regular checking in multiple areas. I use the ThermoPro TP19 because it can do everything a ThermaPen can do, but for a fraction of the cost. You can check out the TP19 on Amazon here.
Butcher Paper: Wrapping brisket in butcher paper has become a huge trend in barbeque thanks to Aaron Franklin. Wrapping your brisket in paper will give you a nice brisket bark. However, you can’t just use any old paper, it has to be unwaxed, food grade paper. You can find it on Amazon here.
Advanced Thermometer and Automatic Temperature Controller: Once you’re ready to take things seriously, the FireBoard 2 Drive is a six-channel Bluetooth/Wi-Fi thermometer that can monitor up to 6 pieces of meat, control and graph your cook sessions on your smartphone, and attaches to an an automatic blower that will convert your charcoal smoker to a set-and-forget. This is one of the most advanced meat thermometers on the market. You can check it out on the FireBoard website here.